A reader recently wrote in to request a regular "Where are they now?" feature, attempting to uncover the whereabouts of certain performers who have fallen off the map. While this would no doubt be intriguing, I imagine that such a feature might be difficult to maintain. Then too, I'm ultimately more interested in the careers that were than in learning that Joan Fagan is now a voice instructor in Oshkosh. But I do feel it's worth paying tribute from time to time to certain distinctive performers who made their mark but are now either rarely seen, retired, or forgotten. This week's column is devoted to a brace of zesty musical theatre women whose performances were memorable but who are in danger of being forgotten, at least by the generation too young to have ever seen them perform. These women weren't quite stars, so you won't find in this survey someone like Dolores Gray, who may no longer be performing much, but made too much of an impact in her day to ever be lost to history. We'll begin this survey with a woman who did make it to leading lady, although she's best remembered as a top supporting woman.
No, Susan Johnson is not exactly obscure, and that's because she was very special, possessing a voice that can only be described as Broadway bel canto, combined with a gift for wry, sardonic comedy and a big personality. In terms of voice, I would have to state that Broadway has never heard a better singer; Johnson's mezzo was creamy but tart, and her expansive phrasing and style were all her own. She also has entered musical theatre history for a peculiar statistic: In all of her best-known roles--those in The Most Happy Fella, Oh Captain!, Whoop-Up and Donnybrook!--she was involved with some brand of watering hole, either as waitress, innkeeper, hostess, and/or manager.
Of course she could belt, but so could many others. What makes devotees go crazy for Johnson is the way she sings--listen to how she opens a note in the "If you wa-a-a-a-nt something" release of the song "Give It All You Got" in Oh, Captain, or fills the phrases at the end of "When The Tall Man Talks" in Whoop-Up. While she's incomparable throughout the Happy Fella cast recording, she's most amazing in unexpected spots, like the wistful coda to "I Like Everybody," or the way she holds her own with opera singers in the trio near the end. Indeed, Johnson sings like the greatest opera singers, but she had a voice that was pure Broadway.
She supported in Buttrio Square, Happy Fella, and Captain!; when she got a chance at leading roles, they were in duds like Whoop-Up and the road closer Carefree Heart, and her final Broadway role was a supporting one in Donnybrook! in the early 60s. For years thereafter, show followers treasured her recordings (which also include her never-to-be-touched Meg Brockie on a Columbia studio recording of Brigadoon) and wondered what had become of her. Finally, she turned up on the West Coast, her voice lowered considerably but still there, and the style intact. She stopped the Long Beach Civic Light Opera production of Follies leading "Who's That Woman?," and has continued to appear in Los Angeles benefit concerts. Last year, Johnson, not in good health, delivered a shocking solo version of "Who's That Woman" at the STAGE Sondheim benefit; seated in a chair surrounded by mirrors, she gradually removed her makeup and wig, giving the final line "That woman is me" a new, tragic twist. Last year, a friend supplied me with a tape that featured recordings of her numerous TV appearances in the '50s and '60s along with selections from a live tape of Johnson as Ella in Bells Are Ringing in stock. Hearing her open up a line like "And yet I can't help wondering wha-a-a-a-t does he look like" was to be reminded once again that Johnson was, as stated above, unique.
Karen Morrow has often said that it was hearing Susan Johnson on the Happy Fella album that inspired her to sing, and allowed her to realize that she also possessed an enormous voice. No one ever sang louder than Morrow--not Merman, not Gray, not Johnson--and it was also a voice of great clarity, precision, and flexibility. The received wisdom about Morrow is that she arrived at the wrong time; emerging in the early '60s by understudying Tammy Grimes on the tour of The Unsinkable Molly Brown then impressing in the off-Broadway revival of The Boys From Syracuse, she was clearly suited to the kind of shows Merman did in the '30s and '40s. More of a problem was that she was dogged by flops, getting to create roles in I Had A Ball, The Grass Harp, I'm Solomon and The Selling of the President in between being terrific in City Center revivals of Oklahoma!, Carnival, and (in Johnson's role) Happy Fella. On a tape of a '70s stock production of Annie Get Your Gun, Morrow's singing could not be more glorious.
Discouraged by all the flops, Morrow left New York for a period of time, returning in the mid-'80s with a dazzling solo concert followed by a takeover from Cleo Laine in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Morrow also had some TV roles, and has never stopped working; in recent years, she has made a specialty of several parts--Carlotta in Follies (she did it in the same production that saw Johnson's return), Rose in Gypsy, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd--that she has played in numerous venues. And she is now Parthy in one of the touring companies of the Livent/Hal Prince Show Boat. Even if it is true that she never really got the Broadway chance she deserved, her singing on the Syracuse, I Had A Ball, and Grass Harp albums remains stunning. None of today's top show belters sounds anything like Johnson or Morrow; it may be a lost style, and if you haven't heard these ladies sing, you should seek out their discs.
Another extremely entertaining lady, Osterwald is best remembered for her comically insinuating "Goona-Goona Lagoon" number in The Golden Apple, her delivery of the very catchy "Harmony" number from A Family Affair (a show that featured John Kander's first Broadway score), and her show-stopping "Ragtime Romeo" in the Carol Channing debacle The Vamp.
Osterwald was never really a leading lady, but a very warm, funny, spicy presence in support of the stars. She did, however, do an excellent job as standby in the original Hello, Dolly!, not, of course, in place of Channing, who never missed a show, but filling in for Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, and Betty Grable. And her work can still be admired on her cast albums, especially on the Columbia studio recording of The Boys From Syracuse in the role that Karen Morrow would later play in the revival. Osterwald's irresistible brassiness was last displayed on the national tour of 42nd Street; she played the role created on Broadway by Carole Cook, and was still grand.
THE FIORELLO! LADIES
One show featured the next four women on my list, so I'll use it to link them. Few performers were more sheerly adorable than PAT STANLEY, who was a superb dancer, comedienne, singer, and actress. She might not have possessed certain leading ladies qualities--she was delicate and delicious rather than dominating and powerful--but her comic dance routines in Goldilocks (staged by Agnes de Mille) were marvelous, and she shone in Fiorello! ("I Love A Cop" was her big number) and, previously, as Gladys on tour with The Pajama Game. Stanley, who also had a Broadway non-musical lead in David Merrick's production of the comedy Sunday in New York, dropped from sight early, reappearing (and looking very much unchanged) only for the short-lived revival of The Five O'Clock Girl.
ELLEN HANLEY is the first soprano of this survey, and for sheer golden-voiced singing, she had almost no equals. Barbara Cook was, of course, the finest soprano of post-war musical theatre; Hanley's singing was just about as glorious, but the voice--darker, lower-placed, more burnished and melancholy than Cook's--was less suited to star parts, and her personality was more subdued. But just listen to her on the recordings of Fiorello!, Two's Company, and the same Syracuse revival that featured Morrow--no "Falling in Love With Love" will ever surpass Hanley's. She resurfaced in surprising fashion in the late '80s--as standby for the non-singing, comic role played by Anne Francine in the Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes. (When I ran this item in my Theater Week news column, she sent me a note to say how grateful she was that I remembered her.)
EILEEN RODGERS holds a big place in the hearts of fans who treasure great Broadway singers of the '50s and '60s. Her big break was with her "Gentleman Jimmy" cameo in Fiorello!, but the same team that created that show picked her up for a major role in Tenderloin, and she was terrific, offering a meltingly sung "My Gentle Young Johnny," and belting sounds in "Little Old New York" that rank with the finest. To this day, I don't believe that any post-Merman performer has sung the Anything Goes songs better than Rodgers, who can be heard doing them on the cast recording of the '60s off-Broadway revival. She also boasts one of the more bizarre recording credits, singing Abbe Lane's numbers on the Oh Captain! cast album when Lane's label felt threatened by the idea of loaning her out to Columbia. After the disastrous Kelly (of which Rodgers stated, "Tenderloin was a flop, too, but at least the people were nice on that one"), Rodgers had just one more New York outing, standing by for Merman in the 1966 Lincoln Center Annie Get Your Gun revival. Perhaps it was the fact that Merman never missed a show that caused Rodgers to disappear (does anyone know where to?).
Our fourth Fiorello! lady is the most obscure in this survey, because that show provided her only major Broadway musical role. But I doubt that anyone will ever deliver "The Very Next Man" the way PATRICIA WILSON does on the cast album (not to mention the fact that few ladies have ever been able to handle that song's wide range as comfortably).
Another soprano, and arguably Broadway's best after Cook, Watson made her first impact being utterly adorable as the original Kim in Bye Bye Birdie. She was also the first Luisa in The Fantasticks when the show was tested prior to New York, but did not play it off-Broadway (although she did get to do the 1964 TV version). Watson was also sweetly entrancing in Celebration, Ben Franklin in Paris, and No, No Nanette, but she was pigeonholed as an ingenue, and when she got older, the roles got fewer. But she has never stopped; now based on the West Coast and involved in a new organization presenting concert versions of vintage musicals, her voice is still there, and she continues to appear regularly. Some time ago, I watched a video of Watson in Cook's role in an L.A. production of The Grass Harp, and she was as good as ever.
Less successful and remembered than some of our others here, but none the less distinctive, with a belt the size of a house, matched with creamy, very thick tone. Staiger did Susan Johnson's role in the London Most Happy Fella, and she's pretty astonishing on the cast recording. She understudied Dolores Gray while playing a supporting part in Destry Rides Again, and got her big chance playing Sophie Tucker and defiantly belting "I'll Show Them All" in the quick flop Sophie. After that, she gave up on Broadway, but has from time to time turned up in TV commercials. Had Sophie been Funny Girl (the two musicals played the same theatre, the Winter Garden, and have numerous narrative similarities), Staiger might have been a big star; it wasn't, but her singing was so powerful that she deserves to be remembered.
I couldn't resist throwing in this wonderfully subversive singing comedienne, whose Broadway musical career extends as far back as Flahooley. DeWitt was notable in Ben Bagley's Shoestring Revues, replaced Karen Morrow in The Boys From Syracuse, but never found the comic role she needed to make her mark, finding more success in clubs and revues. But she returned briefly to New York in the mid-'80s, and her devastatingly on-the-money portrayal of fading '50s nightclub diva Kay Goodman in Niteclub Confidential ranks as one of my favorite performances of that decade.
I could go on--there's Rae Allen, Jeannie Carson, and so many more. But the ten above are sufficiently treasurable, and, one hopes, never to be forgotten.
THE BANDWAGON REVISITED
It may be possible to view the 1953 MGM musical The Bandwagon as nothing more than a charming backstager featuring a brace of wonderful Schwartz-Dietz songs and pros like Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, and Nanette Fabray. But a recent viewing of it made me realize that the depiction of musical theatre and its ailments in the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green boasts a remarkable amount that is just as applicable to the Broadway musical of today. The depiction of a big show put in the hands of an artsy British director with no experience at staging Broadway musicals just might bring to mind a couple of recent debacles. Then there's the New Haven tryout sequence for the show-within-the-film, a show burdened by tons of scenery, none of which works, and some of which actually puts the cast in jeopardy. Sound familiar?
And how touching it is now to watch the early moment in the film when Astaire, playing a former Broadway great now down on his luck and paged by friends to return to the stage, strolls down 42nd Street with Fabray (currently appearing off-Broadway in Bermuda Avenue Triangle) and Levant and remarks how drastically the street has changed. Where once the street was dominated by the New Amsterdam and the Selwyn--the theatres where he and his fellow stars triumphed--Astaire remarks that it's now dominated by billiard parlors, shoeshine stands, and garishness (the pimps and junkies had not quite taken over by '53). The same theatres Astaire recalls so wistfully as top playhouses are now relighting, so perhaps we will see a happy ending not unlike the one that just about every MGM musical like The Bandwagon boasted.
THEATRE CDs OF THE WEEK
From Varese Sarabande, we have Lost in Boston IV (now available) and Unsung Musicals III (to be released May 20), the final volumes of two very worthy series. As was the case with other entries in these series, the two new discs have their ups and downs, but both are worth investigating.
The Boston series has been devoted primarily to songs cut on the road; the most intriguing things on IV are the three Ballroom cut-outs (two for the female lead, one for the male), all sung by none other than one of this week's tributees, Karen Morrow, and the Big song, performed by Danny Burstein and the show's actual leading lady, Crista Moore. (The latter song is called "Turning Into Something"; the notes state that it was replaced in Detroit by "Stars, Stars, Stars," but wasn't that one a replacement for the Detroit duet "Isn't It Magic?"?) There's also a Goldilocks reject with a very catchy melody, and two more from 110 in the Shade, a score already featured on Bostons I and III.
Best on the final Unsung are the numbers from two unrecorded off-Broadway revues of the '80s, Diamonds and Personals; the title song from the Harnick-Raposo A Wonderful Life; Maria's recipe number from Smile; and a song from the unproduced Ashman-Menken Babe Ruth musical (Debbie Gravitte, who recorded a different song from this score on her Menken disc, perform the one here beautifully).
QUIZ OF THE WEEK
For whom did Susan Watson take over during the pre-Broadway tryout of Ben Franklin in Paris? Who replaced Watson in Ben Franklin in Paris on Broadway? Answer to last week's quiz: Betty Comden filled in for Imogene Coca for a week or two in the Broadway production of On The Twentieth Century; Comden was, of course, co-author of the book and lyrics for the show.
Girodet asks: Recently, I saw the new commercial for the 20th anniversary production of Annie. Upon closer investigation, I realized it wasn't so new after all. This 30-second spot shows Marcia Lewis as Miss Hannigan and a man I believe to be John Schuck, both primping in the mirror. It also shows a silhouetted back shot of Annie and Sandy (which at first I thought was intended to avoid the controversy over the firing of Joanna Pacitti). As we all know, Ms. Lewis played Miss Hannigan in the early 80's and is currently on Broadway in Chicago. Those who have come to admire Ms. Lewis in her last several performances might see this and assume she is in the new cast, even though there is a voice-over that states Nell Carter's in it. Is this false advertising? Are the producers so cheap they can't film a new commercial? What do you think?
KM: Clearly, no one involved wanted to spring for a new commercial, and this is indeed the one aired late in the run of the original Broadway production (and the Warbucks in the ad is Harve Presnell).
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